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By: Chris Hall, MMATorch Contributor
The story of UFC uniforms has been lingering in the background throughout 2014. Finally, it was announced on Tuesday afternoon that Reebok would become the official UFC apparel sponsor for all the promotion's competitors. A landmark for the UFC, the deal will completely change how sponsorship currently works for every fighter on the roster. While the new system holds some inherent benefits for the competitors, it also has some glaring problems.
Over the last few years, the sponsorship market has gone downhill quickly. This is especially true for the lower- to mid-tier fighters who don't command as much attention as the stars. Many of these fighters are being 'paid' with gear instead of money, and the monetary sponsorships aren't particularly lucrative.
The Reebok deal ensures that every fighter appearing on a card will get paid by their sponsor every time they compete, without having to struggle with sponsoring companies. While it's not a universal problem, athletes not getting paid by sponsors is an ongoing issue. In speaking about the uniform policy, former Light Heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin discussed non- and late-payment from sponsors during his career. That problem hasn't gone away; just a month ago, Akira Corassani voiced complaints on Twitter of non-payment from his sponsor Fear the Fighter. Additionally, fighters like Matt Wiman and Gray Maynard, both of whom chose not to find sponsors for their latest bouts, won't be forced to negotiate sponsorship contracts or seek out payment afterward.
The fighters will likely appear more polished. Gone will be the days of Condom Depot and Dude Wipes and, much worse, Holzer Reich. Aesthetically speaking, this is probably a good thing. Fighters' in-cage attire currently resembles a Nascar vehicle, cluttered with advertisements from as many companies as they can find. The uniforms will provide a cleaner look that doesn't resemble a messy collage of bumper stickers.
By all appearances, the Reebok deal is only the foundation for promotion-wide sponsorship. Reports are already surfacing that the UFC is working on another deal, this one with Monster Energy drinks. Presumably, some of that sponsorship will also go to the fighters. If the UFC is able to build a strong stable of sponsors in addition to Reebok, fighters may see a substantial amount of income coming from a combination of companies.
It's no secret that the UFC already operates with the deck heavily stacked in their favor when it comes to any sort of negotiations with their athletes. The UFC implemented the uniform policy without input from, or disclosure to, their roster. In fact, the fighters still haven't been told how much they'll be paid under the new deal. By taking control of sponsorship, they usurped one of the few means the fighters have to control their own earning potential.
As the deal currently stands, fighters will be almost exclusively limited to Reebok for sponsorship money. While the UFC brass assures that they won't make a dime and the fighters will get the “vast majority” of the revenue, this still leaves a limited amount of money for an increasingly busy schedule. Currently, the number reported by Gareth Davies is a $70M deal over a six year term. Assuming a 40 event yearly schedule with 11 fights on each card and every cent going to the fighters, that's a little over $13K per fight.
Matt Wiman, who's been competing in the UFC since 2006, said he'd be able to drum up about $1500 “if (he) hustled a bit.” For someone like Wiman or an even lower profile fighter, the uniform policy could mean more money without the hassle of negotiation. However, championship and star-caliber fighters can ink much larger deals. In 2013, Forbes reported that former welterweight king Georges St-Pierre was signed to multiple 7-figure sponsorship deals. Even with champions getting the right to negotiate their deals with Reebok, it's hard to imagine the company matching those kind of numbers on the reported budget.
In this way, company-based sponsorship further prioritizes the UFC's image over the ability for individual self-promotion. With over 550 fighters on the roster, it's already difficult for a fighter to stand out from the crowd. Adding minimally customizable uniforms serves to make each competitor less remarkable. Maybe this will “further professionalize the events and the sport in general” as the UFC FAQ on the policy indicates, but as ratings and pay-per-view buys show, fans follow individual competitors. How much more difficult will it be for fighters to stand out when they look just like everyone else who steps inside the Octagon?
Undoubtedly the most controversial news about the uniform policy is the tiered payouts. Champions will receive the “lion's share,” then fighters ranked 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, with whatever is left for the rest of the unranked roster. While there's no issue with top performers getting larger payments, the UFC intends to put fighters' earnings in the hands of their media rankings panel.
The contentious rankings process has seen many well-known and full-time MMA journalists withdrawing from the practice, leaving representatives from other lesser - and almost completely unknown - sites like WTAN Sports and the Asbury Park Press to fill the void. Dana White has already stated his desire to revamp and improve the rankings panel. He'd like to see “legitimate guys who are very credible and ethical.” Credible and ethical journalists have already opted out of the panel due to conflict of interest. Adding a financial component only exacerbates that issue, and leaves White's ideal plan in a Catch-22. Ranking choices will now directly impact the earnings of the fighters, opening the door for unethical practices, real or perceived, from themselves and managers.
Cases like the contract negotiations with Gilbert Melendez and Nate Diaz, as well as the extended injury layoff with Dominick Cruz, present their own problems. With all three, the fighters were removed from the rankings due to inactivity. Under the new uniform policy, these fighters wouldn't be eligible for the level of sponsorship money they'd rightfully deserve until they're ranked again or after their next fight. The UFC's decision to remove Melendez and Diaz was heavily criticized at the time; it's a significantly larger issue when they're directly affecting potential earnings from a fighter.
With the limited amount of information released in the official announcement, it's hard to make definitive statements about how the smaller details will work out. However, this deal represents a massive shift in how sponsorship will benefit fighters in the UFC. Considering the ever-growing roster of athletes, the dramatically expanded event schedule, and the ongoing scrutiny of the rankings system, this deal further complicates the already muddied waters of UFC athlete compensation.
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